Leaf studies the Lavender Tower blueprints on her phone and expands the markings near the top, where the lip of the tower rooftop edges out over the tower walls. “I think it’s within range,” she says, and looks up at Sergeant Iko, who’s nodding.
“One person stationed above each window, then, to catch it if it tries to flee. No goggles on those though, I have exactly nine dark trainers here, and I’ll want each of them to use a pair—”
He’s cut off by the sound of a sob, and they all turn to the ranger that made the sound. He’s leaning over his equipment, hands over his face. One of his peers walks over to put a hand on his shoulder and he straightens, looking embarrassed as he rubs at his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what’s gotten into me…”
Leaf doesn’t respond, sympathizing completely. It all feels so overwhelming, suddenly, and she misses Aiko, and her—wait, what—
“Blue, Leaf, come in!”
Red’s sudden (loud) voice in her ear makes Leaf flinch, and she’s aware of Blue doing the same as he reaches up to adjust his volume. “We’re here, Red, what’s wrong?”
“The ghost at the top of the tower is sending out a… a psychic scream or something, just pouring all of what it feels out, way stronger than it should.” Red is panting between words, which combined with the rhythm of them makes her picture him running. She sees the captain frowning at them and holds a hand up. “I think they’re going to come, any ghosts that can feel it, they’ll come to feast, and they might not be picky about what they target.”
“I think we’re feeling it down here too,” Leaf says while Blue quickly summarizes for the sergeant. “What do we do, Red?”
“We have to capture it, now, before we get overwhelmed.”
“There are barely any ghosts in the area,” Sergeant Iko says, voice echoing in Leaf’s ear. Blue must have given him their channel frequency.
“We don’t know how far it’s reaching, Sergeant.” Jason’s voice sounds thick, like he’s been crying. “It may draw in ghosts from the entire town.”
“Then it’ll be a siege, while a strike team with the goggles go after the source,” Iko says, then mutes himself from the channel and turns to the rest of the room, voice cutting across the hum of voices. “Ghosts incoming, masks on, upward retreat! Move move move!”
The men and women freeze in place for a second, more than just the one who was crying looking like they’re being snapped out of an unpleasant dream, and then they all scramble to replace their supplies and put on gas masks. As they start summoning pokemon Iko goes among them, barking orders for someone to warn Oak, Agatha, and the other big names.
Leaf does her best to tune it all out as she straps her own mask on, trying to focus on what Red said. “How are you shielding it, Red? If it’s a Ghost attack—”
“I don’t think it is an attack, it’s just… communicating, loudly. Blue, are you—”
“I’m getting something.” He’s summoned Eevee again, and Leaf brings Raff out. “Not sure I’d be able to tell what it was if you hadn’t said anything, but Iko confirmed that dark rangers also couldn’t stay on the top floor anyway, so it may not be the main danger.”
“We’re heading up now,” Leaf says as they start following the flow of rangers moving for the stairs. Someone rushes past them in the other direction, probably to alert whoever is at the door, and Leaf’s heart starts pounding with a delayed burst of adrenaline. This is it. She knew it was a possibility when she left the ranch, but now she has to face wild pokemon and maybe hurt them, and against opponents she can’t incapacitate as easily as most. “Once the source of the… scream… is dealt with, the threat should be over, right?”
“No,” Jason says. “They might seek the source of it even after it ends.”
“Why are we going up at all?” Blue asks as their footfalls join the cacophony of others thundering up the stairs. “Why not just evacuate and let the ghosts come and get it?”
“We don’t know what will happen,” Leaf pants. The rangers’ pokemon are a mix of Ghost and lithe, agile Dark types like liepard and thievul, which are clearly used to indoor movement, but Raff and Eevee struggle a bit to climb the stairs quickly, and Leaf reminds herself to do more training indoors with him instead of relying on sims. “Even assuming they don’t go on a feeding frenzy throughout the town, we can’t just let it die!”
“Leaf’s right, it’s a new species!”
Not what she meant, but she’ll take it. The rangers’ job is to protect both people and pokemon, so she hopes that’s what’s on Sergeant Iko’s mind too.
The feelings of sadness and grief get worse the higher they go, but to Leaf they never become debilitating, and even the rangers that were affected more strongly seem to be coping okay. Soon they reach the second to last floor, where the others are waiting for them.
“—already pokemon arriving,” Jason is saying to Sergeant Iko as Leaf gets close enough to hear. The rangers are spreading out with their pokemon, presumably to cover the various windows and stairways. The medium definitely looks like he’s been through some ordeal, but his voice is steady. “Not ghosts yet, likely cubone and marowak from the graveyard.”
“They’re attracted to grief,” Leaf says, and everyone turns to her. “Sorry, thinking out loud… they’re scavengers, right? Grief signals food, maybe they think there’s a feast waiting for them up here. But it doesn’t really fit, it’s not like a giant speaker making crying sounds, and they’re not psychic, so… they’d just be feeling sad, right?”
“I can’t tell how they feel,” Jason says. “The scream is too piercing, I could only tell they were not ghosts, and inferred the rest from what other pokemon are native to the area.”
“Even that’s impressive,” Red says. “Bringing my shields down at all feels like it would quickly overwhelm me.”
“I feel nearly the same,” Jean says, putting what seems like a consolatory hand on Red’s shoulder, probably because of the slight bitterness that he’d spoken with. “I’m afraid none of our gifts except Jason’s will be of much help going forward.”
“Then join the defense here,” Iko says, and turns to the rest of the rangers. “Need a strike team to see if the goggles protect us against whatever it’s doing up top. If not, head back down and join the rest of us in holding out as best we can until the heavy hitters get here. Hopefully they’re dropping everything and porting over, but it still might take some time for them to grab the right pokemon and then get here from wherever their teleporters are registered. Those of you that are Dark, grab a pair of goggles and head up now.”
Leaf watches Blue immediately step forward, expression determined, and remembers the first real fight she witnessed between him and Red. That Blue, not much younger than this one, would have hesitated to reveal that about himself, and she wonders what gives him the confidence to now. A change in perspective from all his new experiences? His time in a leadership role? Or maybe he’s just been in the limelight enough, gained enough prestige, that he doesn’t feel as worried about potential prejudice.
Either way, she feels proud of him, and steps forward to give him a hug. “Be careful.” She doesn’t like that they’re splitting up, but she knows it’s the right call.
“You too,” he says with a smile. “And—”
“‘Take care of Red,’ yeah, I know.” She grins at the old joke, but it quickly fades when she remembers that they were Aiko’s last words to Elaine at Leaf’s hospital bed.
“I’d like to join them,” Jason says, and Leaf turns to see him talking to Sergeant Iko. “I won’t require my own goggles.”
Iko studies Jason a moment while Red frowns at Leaf’s side, looking like he wants to object. But he keeps his silence, and eventually the sergeant nods. “Fine with me, so long as you know what you can and can’t handle.” He turns to the rest of them. “My people all have strong anti-Ghost pokemon, so I’ve prioritized putting them on the windows. Do the rest of you think you can help me cover the stairs?” Leaf nods along with the others. “Good. You two, you’re with me on the first layer. You three, second layer.” He turns back to the rangers. “Split into pairs to cover the windows, clockwise starting with you two. Move out.”
Leaf is in the second layer, so she lets Jean and Artem step forward and join Sergeant Iko before she starts following with Red and Maria. Red is craning his neck back to look at Blue and Jason as they climb toward the top floor, while Iko and Jean talk quietly among themselves. Artem is already spraying himself with repel, and offers it back to Maria when he finishes, who then hands it to Leaf.
“Thanks.” Leaf sprays her clothing and sees Raff wrinkle his nose and walk a little further from her, which makes her smile despite the tension running through her. Balls train pokemon to be desensitized to the smell, but her ivysaur has always been a creature of comfort and hedonism wherever possible. It makes her feel guilty, suddenly, for bringing him here after the life of leisure he’s had for the past few months, and she has to remind herself to get her head in the game; they’re here to help others, and he’s one of her strongest pokemon. She could keep him safe and comfortable, but then he wouldn’t be able to change anything in the world, and while he didn’t exactly volunteer for danger, neither did any of the people or wild pokemon they’re trying to save.
And if another threat like the Hoenn myths is really appearing here, a peaceful life on the ranch may not be possible anyway.
Once they reach the stairway, Iko and Jean go down to start setting traps while Artem uses another bottle of repel on the stairway. She hopes whatever is driving them to come here isn’t strong enough to get them to push past the chemicals, but somehow she knows it will be. She wishes she spent more time studying cubone psychology, wishes she could find a way to stop them… Joy won’t help here, the singing would stop them from being able to defend themselves against ghosts, who wouldn’t be affected…
“Red, could we scare them off?” she asks.
“Been thinking about predators, but none of their natural ones use sound to communicate. We could try venusaur roars?”
“Do it,” Iko says from the stairwell as he dumps water out of his canteen on the stairs below him, then carefully directs his froslass to Ice Beam it. “May not work on all of them, but if it scares off even a few it’s worth it.”
Red and Leaf move together to put their speakers at the edge of the stairs and sync them to his pokedex. Soon the venusaur cries are echoing down the stairs, making Raff go still and focus entirely on the stairwell, as if expecting one of his kind to jump into sight at any moment. Hopefully the effect is as pronounced on the approaching cubone, if that’s what they are.
Jean and Iko reach the top of the stairs, having laid all sorts of traps on the stairs below them: sleep powder and stun spores, spikes and stealth rocks, sticky webs and patches of ice. Leaf has never seen so many defensive preparations put into a single location, and for a minute she allows herself to hope it will be enough.
And then they wait.
Five breaths. Ten. Fifteen. The sound of each exhale within her mask is all she hears, along with the constant loop of the recorded venusaur roars, and Leaf wonders how the team that went upstairs is doing, wonders just how direct the compulsion is (are there cubone spread out around each floor below them, milling aimlessly around?), wonders if any of the rangers stationed at the windows are fighting off ghosts yet (would she hear them over the looped recording?)… but mostly she just stares at the stairwell and focuses on her breathing, trying to keep herself ready for the moment something happens…
…and then she hears it.
Just a vague sound, at first, a faint, wavering tone that rises and falls even as it echoes from countless throats.
“Crying” is how the pokedex described it, and when she played the audio files she had to admit that yes, the way the cubone family communicates sounds pretty close to how humans sound when they cry. And like human crying, there’s a range; heart wrenching sobs, sad and pitiful sniffles, prolonged moans of pain, and the wails of deep and haunting grief.
What she’s hearing right now, over the roars of the venusaur recordings, is all of it. Louder by the second, the storm of “grief” echoes up the stairway from the pokemon on the floor below, getting louder by the second, and a deep and primal fear works its way up her spine even as her heart breaks at the sound of what she can only identify as pain.
And then the pitch changes, takes on notes of alarm as a clamoring is heard from the stairwell, and her stomach roils as she imagines a group of cubone and marowak struggling through the traps. Some are designed to simply knock them out or keep them stuck on the stairs, but she knows even they might get trampled by the ones running up behind them.
She only has a moment to wish she’d put earplugs in before the first two bone masks rise into view, followed by three more, and the battle begins.
Blue is at the back of the group heading to the top floor, likely because the other rangers feel they need to protect him and Jason. He doesn’t mind that so much—certainly not as much as he would have earlier in his journey—but it does mean he doesn’t get to see what’s happening when people at the front of the group start to curse or cry out in surprise, particularly since they come to an abrupt halt while doing so.
The fact that it’s rangers that are shocked to literal stillness only makes him a little less impatient to see what’s causing it himself.
“Dai?” someone just ahead of Blue asks. “Phoebe? Everything alright up there?”
“It’s… yeah,” a guy, presumably Dai, responds. “The walls are weird.”
There’s the sound of steps above, and then people start moving again. Blue hurries up, practically standing on tiptoe to try and see past the rangers (he’s only grown about two inches since they left Pallet Town and cannot wait to hit his growth spurt), until finally the two directly in front of him reach the top, pause for their own moment of shock, then step forward enough that he can see…
The walls are weird.
That’s one way to put it, alright. Through the tinted lenses of the goggles, Blue stares agape at the top floor of the tower. Iko described his experience as one where the walls seemed about to crush him; to Blue it’s like the walls aren’t even really walls.
It feels like he’s not in a building, but rather a cavern, the ceiling impossibly high, the boundaries distant and curved outward, as if the top of the tower was built into a massive sphere. But there are corners, his mind is insisting that he can trace the corners, and yet as soon as he looks away from them it all looks curved again…
Jason makes a sound from beside him, and Blue turns to see the medium standing with his eyes tightly closed. “You okay?”
“It’s surreality,” Jason says through gritted teeth. “The whole floor… the walls and ceiling, the pokemon is somehow… stretched over all of it… or influencing all of it…”
Blue turns back toward the bizarre sight and focuses on individual objects. A pair of benches, the handle of an individual crypt drawer, a pot of flowers… unlike the lower floors there are a lot of unmarked squares in the wall for future interment, though a few of the marble squares have nameplates already above their handles. He can see those clearly enough, in fact whatever he focuses on seems fine… but everything in his periphery gets distorted.
“Do you need to go back down?” he asks even as a small, mad part of him wants to take the goggles off and see what the room looks like without them.
“Not yet. I have an idea…” He pulls a ball from his belt and braces his arm. “Go, Lampent.” A tint of blue is added to everything as the ghostly lamp appears, and after a moment Jason nods. “I can navigate with its senses.”
“I thought you had to be shielded?”
“Red and Jean do. I’m alright as long as I don’t try to merge with the ghost causing all this.” He starts moving forward again, and Blue does too, only to jump as they hear roaring from behind them, distant but echoing up the stairwell.
The rangers react as well, swivelling to face the new potential threat (all except for the rangers furthest from the stairs, who quickly turn again to keep their eyes on what’s now everyone’s backs), and after a moment Blue realizes what he’s hearing.
“Is that… a venusaur?” Gale asks. Blue was surprised she turned out to be dark, considering she has such a strong ghost pokemon, but he supposes even with the handicap it makes sense to focus on them if you’re stationed here.
“It’s a recording,” he replies, grinning. “They’re trying to scare the cubone off.”
The sound repeats, then again, and people slowly relax and begin looking around at the various hallways branching out from their main one again. “Alright folks,” Dai says, “Search in pairs, call out if you find anything. Jabari, watch the stairs in case it tries to run down. We’ve got no one on windows, but we don’t know for sure if it can fly or not. If it can we’ll redeploy, assuming we don’t catch it right away. Questions…? Let’s move.”
They start to spread out, and Blue follows Jason, who follows his pokemon, which bobs ahead just above the ground like a child-sized lamp on invisible legs. It’s weird looking at a ghost directly without feeling surreality from it, almost like he stepped into a movie. “It’s not affected by all this?”
“Not like we are. It’s… think of it as a fish in a river. The current pulls or pushes, but it can still swim.”
“Natural environment advantage. Got it.” Blue looks at Eevee, who seems confused; she keeps taking a few tentative steps forward, then hopping to the side, then focusing on him and getting close, nose sniffing the air. At least she’s not walking into walls or anything. He focuses his attention on one floor tile at a time as they move forward, trying to ignore the way the rest of the ground seems to stretch out around him. “That mean ghosts always see things like this? With space being so… big?”
“Is that what you see? No, my lampent is experiencing something more like what Sergeant Iko described, with the walls feeling too close.” His voice sounds distant, clearly deep in concentration, but his feet move confidently, if slowly, forward. “Like space itself is unfolding around it as it moves forward… and when it looks back… it’s closed behind it again.”
Blue watches as the lampent turns in a slow circle while still moving steadily forward, its blue light stretching shadows around them. Blue has to force his attention on their surroundings again, but that’s no less distracting.
Focus up! You’ve dealt with Pressure twice, you can handle this. But in its own way this is worse: at least with Pressure he could trust his senses, and yet he still winces when he thinks of how close he was to that onix when he missed it. No matter how calm he feels now (and it’s not really that calm, all things considered), if a pokemon jumps out at them from around a corner right now, he would probably misjudge the distance for the throw.
Jason can call it surreality if he wants, but if it is, it’s on a whole different level than anything he’s heard of before. What Blue thinks of, suddenly, is the difference in Pressure intensity between the absol they cornered underground… and Zapdos.
Sweat slides down his neck, and he can hear his breathing echo louder in his mask. It should be more exciting, especially after months of wishing something important would happen to him (that he would stay conscious through), or rather that he could take part in something important (instead of missing the most important night in living memory (and not being there for his friends)) now that the scale of what “counts” as important has so drastically changed from the sorts of things that used to matter.
But if he thinks like that he’s going to do something stupid, like try to take charge in something he has no expertise in. It’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s not doing enough, and for a moment he wonders if there is Pressure at work here… but no, he remembers feeling this way in Viridian Forest too, and at Mt. Moon. Pressure only amplifies what’s naturally there.
He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. He can overcome this urge. He has to.
“Is there anything I should do?” he asks Jason as he looks down a hall to their right, gaze carefully staying on specific objects.
“Anything different, I mean, to prepare, or while searching.”
The medium is quiet for a moment. Surprised he’s asking? Or maybe just thinking it over while trying to concentrate on his merger with his pokemon. “We don’t know anything about it, really, but I’m fairly sure it’s a non-living ghost. It may be possessing some object that seems commonplace here, and because you’re wearing those goggles—”
“I might not notice,” Blue finishes, feeling a chill as he quickly scans around him again, looking for eyes on a wall mounted lamp, or a face on the pattern of a flower vase… but everything looks normal. Well, so does Jason’s lampent… if he didn’t know it’s a pokemon and it wasn’t moving, would he recognize it as one, or would his eyes just pass over it? “Your ghost-vision would notice it though, right?”
Jason smiles, but it’s probably more from nerves than humor. “Yes, unless it has the ability to hide itself from others of its own kind.”
Great. “What about your powers? I know you can’t merge with it, but—”
“I know it’s around. Past that… things like proximity and direction have been impossible to judge since we reached this floor, and previously it was just… up. Which raises a disturbing possibility.”
Blue swallows the sarcastic remarks that rise up, trying not to let his own nerves get the better of him. “Which is…?”
“What if this entire floor is it?”
Blue stops, then turns to stare at Jason. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I’ve never seen surreality affect something beyond the pokemon itself, either the body for living pokemon or the possessed body of non-living ones. We know objects can become possessed and turned to pokemon, and it’s not as though there aren’t some pokemon large enough for multiple people to fit in. What if tales of haunted houses contain some truth? What if the very stones of this tower, specifically those that make up the floor, walls, and ceiling of this level, have become possessed?”
Blue is still staring at him, trying to ignore his growing sense of horror. Inside a pokemon. We might be inside a…
He has a very stupid idea, briefly, of trying to point an ultraball at the floor, but there’s no way that would work, to catch an onix or wailmer you need to be far enough that the whole pokemon is in the light cone of the lens, and he’s not even sure what that would mean in this case if Jason is right. Try to scan it all from outside the building? What would happen to the tower if the whole top floor gets sucked away? Could even a Heavy Ball hold all this stone in it? He thinks a steelix would weigh more than all this, but he’s not sure…
“We should warn the others,” Blue says, and wets his lip. “Maybe even leave, come up with another strategy… what if it’s getting ready to, you know, digest us, or something?”
“It was just a thought… but if you think we should give up the search…?”
His uncertainty and willingness to defer make Blue simultaneously more nervous and more decisive. “No.” The others are probably already fighting to buy them time, and he needs to use it. Blue starts moving again, eyeing their surroundings with even more care. “Hypothetically what would happen if we order our pokemon to attack the floor?”
“I was wondering the same thing. Do you want to try it?”
Blue stops moving again, trying to think of some risk he hasn’t considered. “If you think it’s okay…”
“I think the sooner we find the pokemon responsible for this the better.”
“Can you tell if the others are okay?”
“Just a moment… So far, yes. But more pokemon are coming, and while the ghosts are being stopped through the windows as they try to reach this level, one or the other can’t be held off forever.”
Blue nods, unclips the laser pointer from his belt, then turns to Eevee and points it at the wall in front of her. “Bash.”
The silver fox’s body goes rigid, and it opens its mouth wide before breathing out an orb of purple mist. It sails forward in utter silence, deteriorating as it goes, and to Blue’s warped perspective, it seems like it’s stretching as it passes out of his concentrated vision and into the periphery. He starts tracking it directly with his gaze so that it stays a sphere while the rest of the world stretches out, and instead it suddenly appears to speed up to hit the “far” wall a moment later, splashing harmlessly against the stone and leaving no mark as it fades like mist under sunlight.
Blue waits for a few quick heartbeats, then lets out a breath. “Does that mean much?”
“I’m not sure. It’s hard to imagine such a lack of reaction from something living and presumably hurt, but everything about this is new, even assuming I’m wrong.”
“Yeah.” If only they had a better way to identify if there’s a pokemon around and where it is that doesn’t rely on psychic powers… is there anything that can track Dark pokemon really well? Red or Leaf might know, but they’re downstairs…
There’s a yell of surprise from somewhere to their left, followed by, “It’s here!” and Blue grabs Jason’s arm before running back the way they came so they could take the main hallway toward the shouted commands and other sounds of battle.
The medium stumbles at first, but quickly catches his balance and runs alongside him. It’s hard to judge distances while moving so quickly, and he has to abruptly stop as they exit into the main hallway. Blue hears the stomp of heavy boots as everyone else converges on where the rangers are engaging the enemy…
…only for one shout in particular to cut off mid-word, followed by silence.
There’s still the hurried sounds of a dozen footsteps echoing through the halls, but soon Blue hears rangers shouting for the names of the one who called out, then their partner.
By the time he and Jason reach the others they’re searching one crypt-lined hall after another. Blue looks at Gale just as she turns to him, and even with her mask and goggles, he can see her fear.
“They’re gone. Just… gone.”
The first wave of onrushing marowak are hit by streams of water and beams of freezing light. The moment they go down another handful take their place, which get cut down by sharp leaves and psychic attacks, but they’re followed by another handful, and then another.
They’re all marowak so far, and even as Leaf orders Raff to send out another attack some part of her wonders if only marowak got called, before remembering what happened when Zapdos flew over Vermilion: the Pressure sent the fastest pokemon into the city first. There are likely still cubone coming, and many more of them than there are of their evolution.
A Razor Leaf bounces off a Marowak’s helmet but still causes it to flinch, and it’s knocked down from behind a moment later, only to tumble out of sight. Raff’s next attack slices into its target’s arm and makes it drop the bone club it was carrying. A moment later a jet of water sends it tumbling back into the marowak behind it, who clubs it out of the way only to be hit by an Ice Beam.
The speakers and repel don’t seem to be deterring them much, and soon the top of the stairway is covered in a mix of water and blood and leaves and dropped bones. Leaf wishes Raff had an attack that was less deadly that could reach the stairs, wishes she could swap with someone in front to start using stun spores instead, but she knows this is the most effective defensive line, and even it isn’t enough: before long a marowak gets through and swings at Iko’s froslass.
She weaves to the side and blasts it with an Ice Beam, but it still manages to club her alongside the head, sending a crack through the din of battle. Iko quickly swaps her out while someone else captures the marowak in a greatball, which rolls along the floor away from them as the battle continues.
The marowak that got through was the first sign that the water pokemon are running low, and once they’re replaced the battle becomes far less one-sided. Unable to put out the damage to keep the horde of marowak in check, Leaf realizes that they need a tank… but they’re hampered by the very thing keeping them safe: the size of the chokepoint. Anything big enough to cover the whole thing would be overwhelmed by the attackers on its own.
So when Iko yells, “New chokepoint, to the right!” and summons a slaking to cover half of it at an angle, Leaf is already moving alongside Red, Jean, Maria and Artem to help protect it. The relief that they won’t be overwhelmed just yet doesn’t stop the steadily growing sick feeling in her stomach. They must have taken down dozens of them by now, the bodies on the stairs are starting to pile up, and still more are coming…
And then, abruptly, the cubone are there, climbing over the bodies of the fallen marowak that came before them. Some attack the slaking fervently while others try to climb over it, their cries competing with the pained bellow of Iko’s pokemon as it rears back for a powerful swipe of its arm. Leaf shifts her position again and yells out a command for sleep powder, knocking out two cubone who climbed over the slaking before they could go any further. She quickly catches both, then takes out two more pokeballs as another skull-helmet appears above the slaking.
The speakers have been sufficiently smashed to stop the endless loop of venusaur roars, and now the cries of the cubone are that much louder. They’re even higher pitched and more like human babies than the marowak, and they’re so small…
Her heart feels like it’s being torn in two, and her eyes burn as she continues to throw out commands and pokeballs, trying to save as many as she can.
“Need a new tank!” Iko calls out.
“I’ve got one!” Red yells.
“Ready, set, swap!”
The bruised and bloody slaking is withdrawn, and in its place appears the kingler Red caught in Vermilion. Frothy streams of water shoot out of its mouth, knocking a few cubone down the stairs and causing a few more to slip and slide back as they try to climb the bodies of the fallen, and that heavy red claw catches another as it tries to run by it on the right, blood dripping as it closes shut, and Leaf has to look away, eyes burning.
It should have gotten easier, seeing this, experiencing it. After everything she’s been through, it should hurt less. But part of her is glad it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, kingler can’t carry a lot of water, and soon the sound of bones hitting shell fills the room. Leaf quickly summons Wise and commands the noctowl to keep up a steady whirlwind aimed at the stairwell from over the tank’s wide, squat body, then uses the brief respite to feed Raff some ether and checks to see how the others are doing.
Iko’s houndoom leaps from cubone to cubone, biting and kicking, while Maria’s tangela wraps multiple of them in vines that glow, absorbing the life from the cubone even as they try to hack their way free. Jean’s exeggcute use Bullet Seeds to assist from afar, while Artem’s claydol floats above them all, psychic attacks dropping any that try to get past.
They’re still holding, and still have four or five pokemon each. Surely they can last longer than however many pokemon are coming… but through it all, cubone are dying.
Some more balls are thrown, including her own at ivysaur’s targets, saving a few. But the floor is already littered with the dead, and Leaf’s horror rises as she notices the size of some of the unmoving bodies. A cubone’s health can be partially determined by the appearance of the exoskeletal “mask” they grow around their heads; the more bones they’ve ingested, the more complete it is, until it’s smooth and unblemished, signalling that the cubone is nearly ready to evolve into a marowak.
Some of the cubone in front of her barely have any mask, just a few thin plates of bone on their angular faces. Whatever’s driving them to do this, it’s bringing them all, down to the newborns.
And that’s when she realizes that defeating them all isn’t good enough: this has to stop. Some way, somehow… she has to stop it.
It’s easy to find the general site of the battle: there’s an ultraball lying against the wall of one of the side corridors. But after Blue checks to ensure that it’s empty, he studies the ground around it, then looks around and sees that there are three different directions it could have rolled here from, and no sign of violence anywhere. He even grabs a handle from one of the nearby crypts and pulls, a morbid part of him expecting to find one of the rangers crammed into it, but instead there’s just a series of elegant urns. He quickly closes it and walks back to Jason, careful to step around his lampent as it bobs by.
“Hope your pokemon sees something I didn’t, because if not we’ve got nothing to go on.” Blue feels wired, his pulse in his throat and his foot bouncing on the tile as he keeps looking around, half expecting something to pop out at them while his back is turned. The rangers are still searching nearby, while Gale tries calling the missing rangers’ phones, then locating their positions, without any apparent luck.
He’s getting used to navigating the weird dimensions of this place by being deliberate with his gaze, but Jason is still clearly having trouble moving from one place to another while relying on his pokemon’s senses, and so stays leaning against the corridor’s wall as he tilts his head toward Blue, eyes still closed. “No. But they saw something, before whatever happened, and I heard attack commands.”
“I did too, but without blood or ectoplasm or even a scuff mark, we may not know if we’re even looking in the right place. Our sense of sight is being tricked, maybe sound is—”
“New plan,” Gale calls out as the rangers re-converge nearby. “Two pairs of two, one person from both groups focused on keeping the others in sight. Blue, Jason, you’re with Haku and I. Our people have to be around here somewhere, let’s find them or the pokemon responsible before things get worse.”
Blue isn’t sure if Gale is being optimistic or just pretending to be, but he finds himself reassured by her certainty regardless. It also helps that her voice is coming out angry rather than scared, though he can’t imagine she’s any less afraid for her people and herself than he is, and somewhere in the back of his mind he makes a mental note to always appear confident for the sake of anyone he’s leading.
The others start pairing up, and he walks over to Gale and Haku as Jason follows his lampent toward them. “He’s seeing through his pokemon,” he explains when Gale frowns at the medium.
“Right then. Blue, keep your eyes on us while Jason watches your surroundings. We’re going to sweep the northern hallways one at a time, and if we still don’t find anything we’ll start knocking walls down.”
The people of Lavender wouldn’t appreciate that much, but he understands the sentiment, since he’d do the same thing if his friends were missing. They start searching again, and this time Blue and Jason stay in the main corridor while the rangers go up and down the halls, Haku looking around corners while Gale walks sideways, keeping her head swiveling between him and Blue. Blue makes sure to check on Jason every few seconds too, while the medium just stands nearby and keeps his pokemon turning to cover Blue’s blind spots.
“At least we know we’re not inside it, right?” Blue murmurs after a minute. The silence was setting him more on edge, or maybe it’s just the waiting. He wishes there was something in front of him to fight, so the battle calm would come. “Since they saw something.”
“As Red would say, I feel less sure of what I think I know and why I think I know it with every passing minute. And I think he would be surprised that I had more room to change in that direction.” Jason shakes his head. “Most ghosts don’t consume physical bodies but I don’t know what other form of attack would wipe away their presence so completely.”
Blue gets a brief mental image of two rangers and their pokemon being eaten by a floating, ghostly gulpin, its whole body turning into a massive mouth that stretches wide to swallow them whole as it swoops down on them, and he quickly looks up to check the ceiling again. “Even if they were… eaten… their phones should be trackable.” Unless they get immediately dissolved by some ghost-digestion-system…
“I could try getting its attention,” Jason says, voice uncertain. “I don’t know if it’s worth the risk, but…”
“I think it is,” Blue quickly says, then realizes that he might have meant risk to himself. “I mean, as long as it won’t permanently hurt you?”
“No, I don’t think so. But if there’s a chance that the two rangers can still be saved…”
“Yeah, hang on. Gale, Haku!” He waves them over, feeling disoriented again as he sees Haku approaching from what looks like the other side of a stadium while Gale walks down a simple hallway, and yet both arrive around the same time. “Jason thinks he can summon it to us.”
“I don’t know if it will come to us,” Jason clarifies. “But I think I can provoke a reaction, at least.”
Gale and Haku exchange looks, and Haku nods. “Do it,” Gale says. “Let’s move into a square first, everyone watching the person to their left.”
They do so while the other six rangers continue their search. Blue keeps his eyes on Gale despite the urge to watch Jason, he knows the medium isn’t going to start glowing or anything but if the ghost’s attention is focused on him it feels negligent not to be paying attention to him…
Trust others to make calls. Be part of the team.
He barely finishes having the thought before Jason says, “Okay, let’s see if that,” and then whatever he says next doesn’t register because a spot on the wall behind Gale warps and twists, and when Blue blinks the ghost is there.
He has no doubt this is what they’re looking for. It looks like a marowak, but… wrong. Not wrong the way surreality would make a ghost look wrong, but like someone sculpted a marowak skeleton out of wax with only a vague idea of what marowak even look like, then melted the result and stretched out its limbs so that it hunches over sharp, narrow legs. Its mask of bone is more of a skull, eye sockets empty voids and teeth leering in a rictus grin.
It looks absolutely terrifying, and for the space of a heartbeat Blue just stares in shock before he points and yells “Bash!” so loud that his voice comes out shrill, barely sounding like his own.
Eevee attacks anyway, but the Shadow Ball misses, splashing harmlessly to the side of the ghost. It rears its club back, then sends it spinning end over end at Gale.
The ranger heard Blue’s yell, however, and was already turning just in time to duck under the bone. “Shadow!” she commands, and her mismagius sends a much larger sphere of darkness at the ghost—
—”Guys, it’s here!” Blue yells, and unclips a great ball—
—who dodges. Haku’s umbreon is suddenly there, whole body emitting a dark aura that spreads toward the undead marowak… only to miss, the Dark Pulse passing dangerously close to Jason’s lampent. The bone club, somehow back in the marowak’s grip, cracks across the umbreon’s face hard enough to twist its neck completely around.
“Bash!” Blue yells even as the umbreon rolls lifelessly across the floor, but the attack misses once again, and Blue realizes—”Our pokemon can’t aim properly, except maybe the ghosts!”
His warning is punctuated by Gale’s mismagius once again sending a Shadow Ball in the right direction. It splashes over the marowak before it can completely avoid the attack, and in return it throws its bone club again, which hits the mismagius dead on, causing it to quite literally explode into scraps of purple cloth and mist.
fuck shit it’s strong
But even through his fear the battle calm is descending, his thoughts moving almost too fast to understand anything but conclusions as he watches Haku summon a haunter and Gale brings out a banette.
wasting attacks, need something widespread
He unclips his laser pointer again, and this time when he commands Eevee to “Bash,” her aim is true to the red dot he points onto the enemy ghost’s body… though it’s less of a dot, more of a loose cloud, the high powered laser revealing the insubstantiveness of their opponent.
Jason’s lampent finally gets into position to attack, sending a splash of blue fire at the ghostly marowak at the same time as another Shadow Ball hits it from Haku’s haunter, and as Blue is about to order another attack to follow up the marowak just… melts, disappearing without a trace as the floor twists the same way the wall did when it appeared.
In the silence that follows, Blue can hear the stomp of boots as the others rush to join them, and he hears Haku say, “Did we kill it?” just as he looks up at him and sees something drop from the ceiling in the corner of his eye, seemingly far away but in reality just above Gale.
“Look out, Gale!” Jason yells, but it was too late the moment it appeared, and the ranger drops in a heap as blood sprays from her split skull.
“Need a swap!” Red yells.
Red’s kingler gets withdrawn, revealing the marowak that had been successfully dodging its claw and hammering it hard enough to leave chips of its shell on the ground. Leaf has time to wonder if a fresh wave are arriving or if it’s one from the initial group that got lost, and then Jean summons a slowbro to take the kingler’s place. The marowak gets one hit on pink, blubbery flesh before it gets blasted back down the stairs in a burst of water.
Unfortunately the new tank is too slow to do more than soak damage. Its attacks help keep the pressure off, but it doesn’t have the reflexes to stop the numerous and nimble cubone trying to run past it.
Overall however, the flow of attackers has slowed as the bodies of the fallen have begun to create a true impediment to those still trying to reach them. Leaf has been wracking her mind for things that might stop this madness, and it’s only upon seeing the partially blocked stairway that at least one idea comes to her.
She quickly withdraws Wise, who’s tiring anyway, and sets Raff to guard while she searches through her bag for the right Container. A dozen quick breaths later she’s opening the box containing the pokedoll she travels with.
“Artem! Can your claydol send this to the stairs?”
He turns to her, eyes wide, then looks at her pokedoll, then the stairs, then back to her and nods. He steps beside Leaf as he gives a few quick commands to help the claydol coordinate exactly what to do, and soon his pokemon is floating overhead and the pokedoll slowly lifts… then launches toward the stairway as Artem holds his arms out in fists, where the foam-covered mannequin knocks a cubone down and adds to the pile of (bodies) obstacles.
Red has his own box out a moment later, and his pokedoll also gets launched into the stairs. They can hear the thuds of bone colliding with foam as the attackers turn on the dolls, for a few moments at least, before deciding they’re dead and trying to climb past them, but then Charmeleon is there, tail whipping globs of smoking pitch into the stairwell, and as the attackers struggle to make their way through the obstacles in darkness, for the first time since the initial marowak showed up there’s space to breathe.
Quite literally: the non-psychics among them are panting, herself included. She can hear the sounds of battle from elsewhere as the rangers at the windows try to keep any ghosts from reaching the floor above, and she realizes she doesn’t actually know how close they are to being overwhelmed: maybe they already have been.
She checks her watch and realizes it’s barely been five minutes since they arrived at this floor.
“Red, we need… to stop this,” Leaf pants. “The way I did… with the abra…” She takes a deep breath. “I know you said you have to keep your shield up, but… can you project for me?”
He turns wide eyes on her, and starts to speak… then closes his mouth, looking uncertain. “I… maybe. I might be able to do both. But it wouldn’t be strong compared to what the ghost is doing.”
“What if you… target the ghost? Would it work as a… a channel? Get it to stop?”
“It’s too dangerous,” Jean says from nearby. “Without your shield—”
“You can shield me,” Red says, face filling with a determination that makes her heart soar. “If you can bear it yourself.”
Jean looks torn, and to Leaf’s surprise Maria steps forward. “Please… they’re just children!”
The psychic looks from her to the cubone bodies, then away, gaze down. “I…”
“We’ve lost two rangers,” Iko suddenly says, making everyone turn to him. He’s watching the battle carefully even as he nurses his froslass back to health. “Maybe more, the others aren’t responding, probably still fighting it. If there’s a chance we can stop it even for a moment, that might be enough.”
Jean looks back and forth between them, then takes a breath and turns to Red. “Alright.”
“We’ll keep you safe,” Maria says, voice as confident as Leaf has ever heard her, and Artem nods.
Red sits down, and Leaf joins him, followed by Jean. “Just like last time,” Red says, giving her a strained smile.
Last time, on the cruise. She smiles back, and closes her eyes, pushing all the grief aside, the pain and uncertainty, the fear.
It doesn’t want to go, at first. She feels it coming back again and again as she tries to focus on the pure, unadulterated love and goodwill she’s practiced a few times since, but always in calmer, more positive surroundings…
Live, she thinks, deciding to lean into the fear rather than try to ignore it. The ghost is sending out grief; let it feel the motherly love she feels for her own pokemon, the desire to protect them no matter what. Live. That’s all that matters. Live, live, live…
“Gale!” Haku yells, and rushes toward her with a potion in hand. Blue tried to lock another attack onto the ghost after it struck, but it didn’t stop when it hit the ground, simply sinking into it again.
He almost steps forward to help with Gale, but instead instinctively flings himself at Jason, catching the older boy around the middle so that they both roll along the ground.
He has no idea if he was right, by the time they stop rolling the ghost might have struck at either of them and disappeared again, but as he helps Jason up he yells, “It can move in the walls and floor and ceiling, keep mobile!”
When the marowak appears again its target is the haunter, and again a single strike is all it needs to disperse the ghost’s spikey silhouette into a cloud of poisonous gas.
One of the new arrivals throws the ball they’d locked while the haunter was killed, but the ghost is too fast. The next Shadow Ball gets closer to hitting it, but again it’s gone in a blink…
…and by sheer luck, it appears right in front of Blue, who cries out a warning even as his ball pings a lock, and throws with a surge of triumph—
—that dies as the ball goes through it—
—an attack makes the ghost disappear, and in the coldness of his calm he discards the confusion and starts looking again, taking another ball out as he waits for it to return—
Again Blue throws himself to the side, shoulder and upper back crashing into a wall as he turns to see the ghost behind where he was, bone club in hand. It raises its club to throw at him, then disappears again as blue fire from Jason’s lampent splashes over where it was standing, sending a wave of heat over Blue as he scrambles to his feet even as it reappears next to him again, and this time when it swings he leaps to the side, feeling pure terror even amid the battle calm as he lands and swivels and backsteps and aims…
It’s gone before the lock, dropping out of the wall by one of the rangers that arrived and dropping him with a club, but this time it takes a few hits from the others before disappearing again, and the next time it appears its target dodges, and the next, and the next.
Blue aims the ultra ball in one hand and laser pointer in the other, swiveling his torso as he keeps moving. He has to stay mobile, has to find just the right time… maybe a status effect would be helpful, but he can’t think of any he has that would be quick enough to hit it…
The other rangers have shifted into a star formation, watching each other’s backs as they keep moving as well, and this time when the ghost shows up they’re all ready, moving away and attacking at the same time, and Blue feels a surge of hope. We can get it, we can catch it… The floor under it warps as it starts to disappear, and Blue almost turns away to look for where it will reappear—
But instead of sinking into the ground, it seems to stumble… no, not stumble, stutter, its position moving without its body changing posture, and Jason abruptly yells, “Now, get it now!”
Attacks begin to pour onto it from all directions, Dark Pulses and Shadow Balls, blue Flamethrowers and white Ice Beams (which may be counter productive, but who knows with this thing), and through it all Blue tries to get a lock with his ball, one more try, come on, give me one more chance… but the ping never comes, and when the attacks clear the ghost is gone.
Blue starts swiveling again, and stumbles. The walls, the ceiling, the floor… everything is crowding in on him…
No. It’s static. It’s… normal.
Breathing hard, barely willing to believe it, he carefully takes his goggles off and looks around.
Everything looks fine. The faint feeling of sadness from before is gone.
So are all the bodies.
Here’s a rare author’s post-script! I saw a lot of good guesses as to what this pokemon would be, and I can imagine some might be disappointed that it’s a pokemon that “doesn’t exist.” It’s the only time so far I’ve made up a pokemon, and will probably remain so… but keep in mind that the actual thing we encounter in the games is in some sense exactly this: a marowak ghost pokemon that completely blocks anyone from ascending the tower or detecting it without a Silph Scope, and can’t be captured! Yes it’s treated like a normal marowak in that fight once you have the scope, but that seems like a (boring) artifact of the original games not tweaking pokemon for boss battles, and I’m happy to spice it up to tie it to the wider mysteries in the world I’m building 🙂